Washington D.C., Oct 8, 2020 / 13:19 pm
Members of Congress are supporting a Washington, D.C., Baptist church in its court case against the city’s enforcement of its COVID restrictions on outdoor religious services.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a congregation of 850 members, had filed for a temporary restraining order in the D.C. federal district court Sept. 22, alleging that Washington, D.C. unlawfully discriminated against religious gatherings by limiting them to no more than 100 people, while allowing mass outdoor protests this summer to occur with far more attendees.
Mass protests in Washington, D.C. this summer occurred, including the “Get Your Knee off Our Necks” march on Aug. 28 for which organizers obtained a permit from the National Park Service; tens of thousands reportedly attended the march, where Mayor Bowser instructed that attendees had to wear masks.
The church reportedly applied for a waiver from the public health order in June and again in September, but was unsuccessful.
More than 30 senators led by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) filed an amicus brief this week supporting the church, and alleging “selective enforcement” of health rules by the city.
“The Mayor’s discrimination against houses of worship rests on a mistaken, and unconstitutional, premise that one particular exercise of free speech—a church’s desire to gather together and worship their God—is subordinate to other First Amendment-protected activities,” their brief states.
According to one of the signers, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), it “argues that religious freedom is not a second-tier First Amendment right under the Constitution.”
The Justice Department had also filed a statement of interest in the case, saying that the government cannot discriminate against religion unless it has proven a sufficient reason to do so—which the D.C. government has not.
“While a local government has significant discretion to decide what measures to adopt to meet a public health threat, the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution requires that, whatever level of restrictions it adopts, government must treat religious gatherings the same as comparable nonreligious gatherings, absent the government meeting strict scrutiny, that is, proving that it has a compelling governmental interest pursued through the least restrictive means,” the Justice Department said.
The agency has issued similar statements in other cases around the country, saying that state and local public health restrictions cannot discriminate by holding religious services to stricter standards than similar public gatherings.